I’ve written about another toxic shame experience here
What do Supernanny, the Simpsons and my educational experiences all have in common?
The answer is corner time, the dunce’s corner, standing in the corner, or whatever it’s known as in your part of the world.
Misbehaving youngsters frequently find themselves sitting on the naughty step or naughty circle on Supernanny (my partner’s taste for these shows has proven to be an unintentional mine of useful research material). Bart Simpson was often shown languishing on a chair in the corner (when Homer was not trying to throttle him, that is) and even more so, writing good old-fashioned lines on the chalkboard after school. And then there was me – and quite possibly you, too. Let’s have a look.
By the time I reached primary school, the cane had been more or less abandoned having died a long and drawn-out death over several years. While it was commonplace a decade or so before, my generation was among the first in the UK to spend our educations without its supposedly reformative influence.
Standing in the corner however was commonplace throughout my early school years especially for a spirited, wilful child like me.
The list of offences for which one could be banished were seemingly without end. Had a fight? Go stand in the corner. Not working hard enough? Go stand in the corner. Expressed boredom / frustration? Go stand in the corner. Told umpteen members of your class to go stand in the corner because you’re a crap teacher and can’t control your class properly? Go stand in the…no, that last one was a joke. Unfortunately.
I ended up there on a regular basis throughout my early school career in addition to being sent out of class, sent to stand in the hall, the entrance hall, you name it. I honestly believe one teacher in particular would have sent me to stand on the surface of the moon if he could have managed it so great was his apparent desire to see the back of me. But I digress.
I remember feeling embarrassment each time I was on the receiving end of one of these punishments but I should add they were never formidable enough to prevent further acts of wilfulness on my part – or ‘antics’ as I later dubbed them.
In fairness to my earlier self, I was hardly excessively naughty. None of my behaviour involved blocking toilets, flooding bathrooms or spraying graffiti on the walls. At most they involved fighting with other kids (often in self-defence) and more commonly they were for pretty banal things such as talking in class and so on.
At the time I took my stints standing in the shameful corner with my back to my classmates as manfully as a lad of eight, nine or 10 might. I was not the only kid to meet this fate and I don’t remember my fellow pupils ever ridiculing me for my semi-regular banishments. My only real concern was how my mother would react at parents’ evening but that too was never enough to dissuade me from the pursuit of my antics.
Fast-forward 15 years and the picture had changed. By now I had been clobbered by depression, the hideous, ravaging monster which clawed at my insides and latched on to my skin hanging on like a cancerous barnacle.
I began a course of intensive therapy which involved (in part) a kind of regression, identifying the painful parts of the past, revisiting them and experiencing the feelings which had been buried at the time.
Not just revisiting the feelings but actually feeling them.
During our lengthy sessions I was no long a man in his late twenties. I was a scared, frightened little boy overwhelmed with shame, the toxic shame I have mentioned in an earlier blog. Thoughts, like whizzing throwing knives shot through my brain, slashing chunks of flesh as they went.
They’re all laughing at me.
All of them!
Especially the girls!
I look so stupid!
And so on – each negative thought and self perception like a flock of iron-beaked harpies howling out the skies ready to rip me to shreds or carry me off in their foul talons.
My view is that schools play a pivotal part in how young people develop their self-image as a kind of conscience moderator.
When a teacher sends a pupil to stand in a corner with their face to the wall, it is therefore a symbolic act. The message is ‘you are a disgrace. You do not deserve to be with your fellow man – so you must go over there and hide your features from our sight.’
This may seem like an exaggeration or perhaps an over-simplification but I contend this is the intention. It is not so much to give individuals a chance to think about what they have done or to realise their actions were unacceptable (in the eyes of the authority figure anyway) – it is to attack their sense of self. It is the adult equivalent of the popular kid telling the others in the classroom not to play with so and so because he / she smells or has funny hair or is too fat, or whatever. In this case, the teacher is effectively saying ‘gee, I wish I didn’t have to teach you, because you’re a pain in the arse so you can go stand over there and look like a doofus while I get on with teaching the other kids.’
I was amazed at just how much my experiences had stayed with me and resonated with me for all those years even though by most accounts I would be deemed an educational success story. I passed all but one of my GCSEs with good grades, got straight A grades at A-level and have both a degree and a post-graduate certificate to my name.
And yet my psyche remained haunted by the image of the self-conscious little boy whose only crime was one of misplaced wilfulness banished from his classmates. I still felt the shame, the embarrassment, the deep sense of having been rejected of not being good enough – concerns which many adults sadly, carry with them all their lives.
So what am I saying? That corner time is an archaic practice which should have been long-since sent the way of the dunce’s cap and the cane? Well, yes. That as an educational practice it achieves nothing of lasting value save promoting a deep-routed sense of inadequacy in the victim while failing to address their behaviour, the cause of it and why exactly what they have done was deemed unacceptable in the first place? Certainly. My own experience proves this beyond all doubt.
Am I suggesting then, that schools should have no discipline? Of course not. A society without laws simply means the biggest and the nastiest getting their way at the expense of everyone else. A school with no discipline is nothing more than a hot-house for bullies.
What I am suggesting is that as adults we should be careful of what we do and say. We never know quite what lasting effect it may have upon kids in later life. ‘Man hands on misery to man’ as the great Philip Larkin so perceptively pointed out. And that does not mean mollycoddling them. There is a happy medium somewhere between Dickensian beatings and chaotic meltdown. The focus should always be to educate – never to humiliate. To show someone why their action was wrong and to help them make better choices in the future.
As for me, while my sojourns to the corner may have brought me shame and humiliation they had an unexpected side effect of making me a hater of injustice and an admirer of life’s underdogs. There’s no doubt in my mind the so-called weird kids who ask the awkward questions and are viewed as a pain in the arse by authority often grow up to be the most interesting adults.
So thank you to all the teachers who ever banished me to the corner for helping me discover my true nature faster than I would perhaps otherwise have done. Your methods may have been archaic, small-minded and frankly fucking lazy – but still couldn’t have done it without ya.
And anyone else who has ever battled toxic shame – welcome. You are my kind of people. I hope I’m yours.